Two Types of Attention, or, What a Kindergarten Teacher, Twitter, and Media Studies Have Taught me About Hunting

I took a long time writing this post, partly because it is over 2500 words long, but primarily because I was agonizing (okay, not agonizing, but certainly having second thoughts) over what these words were going to do to my “image”.  Now I’m not referring to my image on this blog, or on Twitter, or in the vast real estate of the internet, because frankly I have no reputation there worth sneezing at.  I was mostly worried about what guys I hunt with that read this blog would think.  This kind of personal confessional is not really in keeping with this forum’s Mission Statement, but in the past three months or so, I’ve come to notice a few things as I’ve been attempting to expand this blog’s reach, and I thought I just had to get these out there.  Come to think of it, my “image” is probably pretty bad in the eyes of my hunting buddies anyways…oh well, here goes anyhow.
I’ve received some emails lately that this blog (and my extended Twitter feed about this blog) are altogether ‘boring’ or ‘dull’ to quote directly.  By the way, this post is not going to change those beliefs.  At the same time I’ve noticed that many other sites and organizations that seem to be doing significantly better than this one have gone, shall we say, over the top in their representation of the gory, macho, or intense imagery of the tradition we all participate in and love.  Now I’m not going to start dragging out names or publications for ridicule or negative examination.  They’ve put their own names out there with their approach and they aren’t hard to find; but I will touch on a couple of positive examples by name because my (minor) recognition is probably worth something.  Now I’m not looking for validation and I don’t need any “You can do it!” or “Don’t change a thing!” emails, because honestly I intend to keep the status quo here.  Why?  Because I’m a stubborn S.O.B. deep down and I’m set in my ways.  But like I said all this social media and somewhat increased traffic it has brought to the blog did get me contemplating what a heightened, edgy approach to advertising and media representation has in store for the future of hunting.
When I was five years old, I had a very excellent kindergarten teacher I won’t name because I respect her a lot and I don’t have her explicit permission to use her name in this forum.  Suffice it to say she was, if I were to use a cliché, the kind of archetype that I think all kindergarten teachers should be.  She was kind, but firm and had what even at my young age I believed was a genuine care for the kids in her charge.  She was in a sense old-school disciplinarily and while my kindergarten year was well past the age of straps or rulers as a means of corporal punishment, she did run a tight ship and didn’t tolerate backtalk or violence or crass behaviour.  In short, I got the feeling that to disappoint her would be sin of near titanic proportions.  Plus she was not above reporting your actions bluntly to your parents, and I don’t know about yours, but mine always sided 100% with the teachers.
Now I told you that glowing review of this teacher’s character to tell you this story.  Patience, I’m getting to the part about hunting.
To use a casual euphemism, let’s just say I had “precocious tendencies” as a child.  I spent a lot of time between the ages of five and ten in front of some pretty hard-case vice-principals and principals, primarily because I had a smart mouth and no (initial) desire to follow rules, instructions, or agendas.  While in kindergarten, I have a vivid memory of doing some sort of spelling exercise at that young age, and I did very well at it.  I already had a slight reputation for being problematic my teacher took me aside and very directly and concisely explained to me the difference between good attention and bad attention.  The bad attention came from running my mouth rudely and getting in scraps (verbal or otherwise) with other kids.  The good attention came from excelling in school and helping others do well, and that dichotomy resonated with me.  (Not an afterthought, but I also had an exceptionally good librarian and a superb principal in grade school that both echoed the same mantra to me frequently.  What ever happened to good teachers getting involved with youth development?)  Anyhow, while the criteria of what constitutes positive and negative attention have obviously changed as I’ve grown up, that distinction between good and bad attention has always been with me…sometimes vocal and proud, other times (usually when I’m making knowingly poor decisions) as a nagging voice reminding me that at the very least, my one-time kindergarten teacher likely wouldn’t approve.  So the goal is to try to make the “good attention’ type of acts more than the “bad attention” column. 
But enough history and psychology for now.
Where this plays into the future of hunting is that, for this observer, the distinction between good and bad attention (from the perspective of public perception and social media vis-à-vis hunting) is at best blurred and at worst a distant memory.  For now it seems the only thing that people in the hunting media and industry want is “attention” regardless of its nature, and usually at the motivation of money, notoriety, or otherwise.  This is the thesis statement.  It is also where most who think me a crotchety old bat will navigate away, stop subscribing to the blog, and cease following me on Twitter.  That’s fine; my personal worth is not valued in those metrics.  I’ll likely get some hate-mail too; fair enough.
For those still around, I’ll bounce a few contextual examples off you.
In a magazine I recently read an article about responsible land stewardship and low-impact usage of ATVs, with the aim of educating the reader on how to minimize erosion and negative soil effects caused by ATV use while hunting during the wet spring and late fall seasons.  Four pages later (literally) was a glossy full-page ad of a guy bombing through a deep mud-puddle on an ATV, and looking pretty aggro-cool in doing so.  Talk about your mixed messages in the magazine.  Advertising revenue trumps the message of the previous article I guess.  In reality, if you’ve ever been on any public land (or private for that matter) where people actually do this with ATVs, you’ll be keenly aware of the erosion and damage to sub-soil that this practice causes.  One chunk of county forest in Simcoe County actually has a berm in the trail that is (no kidding) four high.  It is a little tough to negotiate in the dark, thinking nothing of the fact that nothing will probably ever grow in that spot again.
In another (this time, online) magazine, I read a truly great article on a reflective, peaceful outdoors experience that lead the writer to comment on how little it truly mattered if a kill was made.  Same publication, some pages later I found a great ad for a new goose call that would guarantee more lethality.  The term “whack ‘em and stack ‘em” was used…and I hate that term.  Nothing like reducing the hunting experience to a bloody game of “Count the Bodies”.
On a trip to the United States for work in March, I was watching a deer hunting program that devoted a good ten minutes of the show to discussions of ethics in shot selection, aging deer properly on the hoof, and being a good role model for the youth of today that want to learn the art of deer hunting.  They then proceeded to shoot a deer that was standing broadside under a corn-dispensing feeder.  I suppose if the law allows it, flowery talk of philosophy and ethics then become a moot point in favour of what they define as ‘success’.
I watched another hunting show recently where the host talked about the safety required in turkey hunting, mentioning that stalking a gobbler is ‘probably not the best idea’.  Guess how he bagged his bird?  Snuck right up on it.  Sigh.
Now these are examples of arguable hypocrisy, and they may fall into the ‘poor choices’ bucket, but when invariably these acts and indiscretions come to define the hunting experience for youth and the non-hunting public who determine the future of our tradition with their votes they become the examples of garnering “bad attention”…I suppose by pointing them out I’m not helping, but hopefully my end will justify the means.  And once that preconception exists, it is far harder to remove it from people’s minds.
I was recently invited on Facebook to ‘like’ a new hunting show featuring the catchphrase “If they run, they’ll just be tired when they die” or something to that effect.  Certainly catchy marketing and I’m sure some guys had a bar-room chuckle over the wording, but I had to ask…is this really the way the hunting tradition should be marketed in public.  I chose not to ‘like’ the show.
This blog is on Twitter.  I like it, actually because I’m able to keep apprised of the good work that organizations like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited Canada, the NWTF, and the OFAH are doing.  I may not always agree with some of the decisions or approaches these groups take, but I do agree with many of the long term goals and their advocacy role, so Twitter is a great tool to stays informed in that regard.  I also enjoy following some hunting products (Primos is a great example of classy guys giving back to the community that made them successful) for new gear updates because I’m a gearhead, as any frequent reader of this forum knows.  I also have personalities in the industry that I follow and some of them follow back or recommend me to the public.  Great, I’ll take the exposure (albeit somewhat uncomfortably).  But in the Twitter world I found a disturbing trend, and that was the segment of the hunting community on social media (it also exists on Facebook, other blogs, etc, etc) that loves to antagonize non-hunters, proudly relate how they “made that critter die!” (Yep, that’s a direct quote) or otherwise seek the ‘bad attention’ that is so detrimental to the public opinion of hunting.
What’s funny is most guys and gals I talk to about this feel like I do…yet there is a market for this approach.  That’s confusing to say the least.  But I digress.
This segment of the population, as I have alluded to before, has always existed, but they now have a much more public platform to do their damage.  The tired argument about saying what you want, and not giving a damn about what others think of you is fine by me…but in this case it is not what others think about you that is the problem, it is that the world at large thinks about you in the context of what you are talking about that is the issue.  Like I said, that segment of oafish, slob hunter has always been around and likely won’t change, and that trait is not exclusive to the hunting community.  There are slob motorcyclists, slob anglers, slob skateboarders, and so on and so on.  What is troubling for me as a hunter is that the trait is increasingly glorified in hunting media and online, making the obligation now even heavier on those who are maintaining an ethic of respect for the game, respect for the land, and respect for the tradition.  I guess the old axiom that there is no such thing as bad publicity has taken hold and there’s no distinction anymore between good attention and bad attention in many of the public messages related to hunting.
I hear it often that “you’re missing the point” or “that’s not what I meant” or my favourite, “well that’s the image but that isn’t our message”.  Like it or not though, images generally speak louder than words.  Also, for those that say that the issue of stereotyping is the problem of the public and not the hunting community I would refer you to history for a guide.  Marshall McLuhan, who was not a hunter as far as I can tell, said it famously in a way that addresses both arguments. 
“The medium is the message”
Basically, the content is equally important, or sometimes trumped, by the way it is delivered.  My favourite analogy was the old cigarette ads I’d read in the 1960’s and 1970’s vintage Outdoor Life and Field & Stream magazines my Dad kept around.  They showed tranquil, beautiful vistas or bustling nightlife with cigarettes as the focal point…and a small tagline on the bottom from the Surgeon General of the United States that tobacco smoke will kill you.
So it goes with the new media of the hunting industry.  You can have the flowery, positive, tradition affirming language you want in your hunting show, ads, website, magazine, or otherwise.  If the take away message is all blood, guts, and self-important machismo triumphing over beautiful but ultimately secondary nature, that is how you’re going to be known.  By everyone.  That process seems to be proving true of almost all things in our media-centered lives now, so it seems that the quiet, classy, modest approach to hunting is just a victim.  Still, it seems it would be far easier to keep the message positive from the get go than it would be to change the imbedded stereotypes held by both the hunting and non-hunting public.
We as hunters seem to be of a group-think mentality that believes we are exempt from the modern trappings of media saturation, advertising, and stereotyping.  I’ve frequently needed reminding myself that we are not.  We seem to think that since we engage in a millennium-old tradition that it is somehow timeless or untouchable, that nothing negative we do could ever endanger it.  We continue to believe it at our collective peril.  I’m not trying to sanitize hunting, I don’t want catch and release hunting, or have to resort to using darts or paintballs on game animals.  The kill will always be the constant and ultimate goal for those that hunt.  My argument is that ‘hunter’ should not be celebrated as synonymous with ‘killer’ as there is so much more to the hunt than whether or not the animal dies.  Framing ourselves in that ethic of “kill at all costs” or “look at how much I shot today” does a disservice to the tradition and a serious disservice to the animals we pursue.
So fine accuse me of being a negative reactionary, accuse me of being anti-fun.  Say I’m old, or incapable of evolving into a new media age.  Say “who gives you the right to judge me?” or email me that “I don’t know you”.  Tell me I’m outright wrong…doesn’t bother me one bit.  I know the majority of hunters out there are doing the right things, or trying to.  I know that the ones out there muddying the water for us are people too, and they pay their license fees, and some may volunteer their time, and that many probably have kids they want to pass the tradition on to…just like I do, and just like you might.  I am aware that by simply buying a license they get the privilege to hunt on the same terms as you and I.
The question, and this whole post is about one question, is what kind of tradition will our words and actions leave today if we stop treating hunting as a privilege to be quietly honoured and instead behave as though it is an inalienable right to be boasted and crowed about rudely and at a volume unfit for human endurance?
It is a hopeless cliché, but this time it is apt.  As our kindergarten teachers (and our parents and hopefully our hunting mentors after them) tried to teach us, the “good attention” has rewards that the “bad attention” can’t come close to.  And in this case it is the enduring dignity of the hunting tradition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *